Is a small amount of booze good for you? An excerpt from a piece I wrote for Prospect Magazine in December 2018 about how we decide amidst the inevitable uncertainties. Read the full article here.
It is the season of the handbrake turn: December for drink and indulgence; January for dry resolution. Ever-more health conscious, ever-tempted to treat ourselves, we spin from “what-the-heck” to self-discipline, caught between thoughts of pleasure and harm, never clear where the balance lies.
These feelings are shared even by Sally Davies, the nation’s Chief Medical Officer. She freely admits to enjoying a glass of wine, and yet says that every time she has an alcoholic drink she thinks “cancer.”
None of which is helped by the fact that the story of what’s known about the effects of drinking is disputed. Not at the higher end, of course. In quantity, there’s never been much doubt: it’s bad for you.
It’s at the lower end that arguments rage. And here, the story is still unfolding, but perhaps towards a kind of resolution. A word of warning: before we reach that resolution, things will get murkier. All this means that the next chapter could be the most intriguing of all, partly for what it tells us about the merciless difficulty of finding out the truth about everyday behaviours of all kinds, but above all for what it tells us about risk and the way we reckon with it.
On the gloomy side of the argument, there’s the expert advice to the recently-revised UK guidelines. This included the line: “There is no level of regular drinking that can be considered as completely safe,” a line we’d grown used to about smoking, but not about booze. The phrase “no safe level” made it into the guidelines only in relation to cancer and (controversially) for pregnant women. But that was enough, and, in the media at least, the phrase stuck.
Then, a few weeks ago, it was echoed by a study called “The Global Burden of Diseases,” published in the Lancet: “The health risks associated with -alcohol are massive,” the lead researcher said. “Zero alcohol consumption minimises the overall risk of health loss.”
All of which sounds conclusive enough. And yet, on the other side, isn’t there supposed to be something about moderate drinking being good for the heart and actually prolonging life?
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